Thanks to Srinagar Municipal Corporation, slums are now permanent fixtures in city’s dotting landscape and their inhabitants, corporation’s “unofficial” employees. Insha Nisar Mir & Insha Farhat spend a day in one such slum to see how SMC’s official patronage has changed their lives
Not far from some of the posh-localities that have swelled along the Nowgam bypass, an invisible world resides under the make-shift plastic tents and tin-sheets. From a distance, the entire slum, which occupies around 2 kanals of wasteland near Lasjan Bridge, looks like a melange of colours. Hutments made of used cardboard boxes, scavenged colourful plastic sheets are home to 15 families from as far as Gujarat, West Bengal and even Bangladesh. They are the “official” waste collectors of the Srinagar city.
During day time the slum is devoid of any activity as most of the male members including children are out collecting waste.
But on this particular winter afternoon, as I walked into the slum, a middle aged women who was sitting on a sponge-tuned-chair, looked at me suspiciously while cleaning fish-heads for dinner.
“We are not occupying this land illegally,” she informed. “We pay Rs 50,000 to a local thekedaar (contractor) annually as rent.”
Later I came to know that the land is leased to these waste pickers for a period of 15 months by a local. “We are soon going to construct a hotel here,” informed the owner’s son. When asked what will happen to these families once the construction will start, he snapped back, “none of my concern.”
A little further Mohammad Ali Hyder, who is in his early fifties, is sorting out plastic items from a heap full of trash collected in a large nylon sack. He starts his day before the first ray of light hits his tin roofed makeshift tent. It has been almost 10 years since Hyder left his native place in Kolkata and came to Kashmir. “There is no work back home. I would have starved if I had not come here. It is as simple as that,” says Hyder in a matter of fact tone.
A small girl named Raziya, who had her head covered with a torn-out red shawl, manages to look beautiful despite the odd nature of her job. “My day starts after noon. I go out to nearby areas and collect cardboard boxes, shoe-soles, hair, plastic pieces, tin items etc.,” she said.
In the evening, all the waste collected by these people is emptied on a small piece of land that doubles as their courtyard. Then begins the sorting process: tin on the left, plastic on the right, cardboard and other paper based items in one corner and so on.
The waste material is then handed over to Noor Ali, the head of the slum, affectionately called Jamadaar by the dwellers.
“It is Noor Ali who sells the waste material on behalf of the entire slum to a local Kashmiri scrap dealer named Fayaz Kabaddi,” says Hyder.
Every kilogram of cardboard earns a collector Rs 2. “On an average a waste picker makes around Rs 350 per day,” informs Hyder.
For these waste-pickers, who have lost most of their belonging during recent floods, Kashmir is still a dream destination. “Money is good here as compared to back home,” said Shakeel Ahmad, another waste picker from Kolkata who recently came to Kashmir with his family.
But for a newcomer like Shakeel ‘settling’ in Kashmir was not at all easy. “I paid Rs 500 to a policeman as an entry fee to get here,” alleges Shakeel.
The reason Shakeel chose Kashmir over all other relatively “safer” destination for migration is the vast scope of employment and money. “Kashmir has abundance of opportunities for people like us. And money is also good,” feels Shakeel. “But it is painful the way we are treated by locals here. For them every outsider is a Bihari.”
Every morning when the small kids from neighbouring localities leave for school Shakeel’s heart aches for his two kids. “I too want to send my kids to a school. But being an outsider we are not preferred,” feels Shakeel. “I don’t want them (my kids) to end up like me.”
The slum is lit by 10 bulbs for which the dwellers claim they pay a fee of Rs 2000 per month.
Boon or Burden
There is no official data available with any concerned government agency regarding the exact number of people living in slums, in and around Srinagar city. But according to independent estimates around 30 small and big slums have cropped up on the either side of Nowgam bypass up to Narbal over the last few years. “There must be around 30,000 migrant labourers living in this area alone,” says Muzaffar Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Lasjan who deals in automobile spare parts and lubricants.
There is however a mixed feeling regarding such a huge presence of slums in the locality. “It is kind of a paradox. They clean the mess in main city while polluting the places they live,” said Muzaffar.
Locals allege that there have been many instances of burglaries in the area since last few years. “Goods worth Rs 7 lakh were stolen from my shop recently. But it would be wrong to directly blame anybody without proof,” claims Muzaffar.
But the resentment against the presence of these slum dwellers is quite palpable in Lasjan and its adjoining areas. “They have snatched the livelihood of common Kashmiri’s and that makes them burden on our economy,” said a local mechanic who lives nearby.
But there are some natives who appreciate their resilience and hard-work. “I think it is mere prejudice that makes us to hate them. They are hard-working people who are here to earn their livelihood,” said another local. “And besides they don’t beg. They work.”
Interestingly, most of the male members who reside in this particular slum carry identification cards provided by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC).
These i-cards are provided by SMC in collaboration with Chintan, a New Delhi based NGO that works for the improved disposal of waste involving rag-pickers and kabadis.
“Given the special status of Kashmir how can SMC give these outsiders i-cards? It only helps them fix their roots deeper into our society,” said a Srinagar based journalist whishing anonymity.
Interestingly, these i-cards bear only temporary address i.e. ‘Lasjan Bypass’ and not the permanent address of these rag-pickers.
“You are making an issue out of nothing. These cards are provided so that they (rag-pickers) can work smoothly and are not harassed,” said Manzoor Ahmad Taray, Chief Sanitation Officer, SMC.
Besides, says Taray, “We are working under High Court directions. “We have a contract with Chintan so that we come to know about the exact number of non-natives working as rag-pickers. And we also keep tab of the amount of waste material sent outside the state by these people.”
But when asked why these I-cards don’t carry their permanent addresses, Turry said, “We have issued these cards only after collected all the necessary documents from these people.”
“We don’t know about any documents. We have none in fact. We were just given these cards and that is all,” says Noor Ali, the head-man of the slum who safeguards his I-card like a relic.
Refuting Noor Ali’s claims Turry says that all the details related to these rag-pickers who “unofficially” work for SMC to clean the city mess will be available on their website shortly.
But locals in Lasjan areas worry that these rag-picker use these i-cards to procure mobile sim-cards and avail many such benefits.
“Nobody is misusing these i-cards. Why we have such a bias towards these outsiders. Even a Kashmiri can misuse his/her i-card. Why to single them out because they are not natives,” says Turay.
“We have developed a notion that these people are not good for our society. And because of that notion they face humiliation and sometimes police actions as well. So to save them from all this we have issued these cards,” reasons Turay.
But locals in Lasjan see it in a different way. “These cards have given them sort of patronage from SMC. Why can’t SMC employ locals when there is so much of unemployment among youth?” asks a local from Lasjan.
“They are hardworking people who keep our city clean for us. If these people leave tomorrow, our city will become a garbage dump,” claims the SMC official.
But locals fear that employing or involving outsiders to collect waste on behalf of SMC that too without any proper background check, could prove costly for the society. “Who knows a guy working on your streets is a criminal or a saint in his hometown in Kollata, West Bengal or Bangladesh?” asks Mohammad Abdullah Wani, 65, a retired teacher from Lasjan.
“Anyone can be involved in criminal case. Even I can be involved. It is not a big deal,” says Turay.